When reading about places to go in South America, San Pedro de Atacama kept coming in as a great place to visit. Since we could end our salt flat tour there, we decided that we should stay a few nights and see what all the hype was about.
As our bus drove into the city we were shocked when we saw what the city looked like. It reminded me more of a shanty town than a tourist town in Chile, one of the most developed countries in all of South America. At this point, I had a feeling that the city wasn’t going to be quite what we expected.
Everything is Expensive in San Pedro
The first reason we didn’t like the city was that everything was expensive. I realize that we are in Chile where things are more expensive, but since the town was on the map solely because of tourism, everything was Gringo prices.
We used bottled water as our baseline price as we have been purchasing this for the 3 months we have been on the road. The water here was almost 2x as much for the exact same brand and size as compared to other cities we visited.
It was challenging to find food options that were reasonably priced. Many of the specials promoted by the restaurants on signs outside were not valid when we inquired about them. This left us wandering, trying to find a decent meal at a decent price.
Even our taxi from our hostel to the bus station, which was no more than 5 minutes cost us $4.25. This is dramatically more expensive as most cities in South America would only charge $2 for a ride this length. We had to pay it though as walking 30 minutes with all of our gear to the bus station was not an option we were willing to consider.
You Have to Book Tours to See Things
It is nearly impossible to do anything on your own as the sights are far away and there is no public transportation in the city. The closest that you can get to doing things on your own would be renting a bike and riding around. Unfortunately, all of the major sites are quite far away so you can only really ride around the desert.
While we didn’t consider doing any tours, we did check out some prices and they were quite high when you factor in that you get – transit, entry fee and a meal. Even though there were a few options that looked cool the thought of going on another tour after we had just spent 7 days on a tour was not something that I could stomach.
We Had Seen the Same Things on Our Salt Flat Tour
When we looked at the tours offered, they were all the same sights that we saw on our salt flat tour. There are salt flats, lagoons, volcanos and more. If you just came from the salt flats you won’t be interested in these. If you are going to the salt flats after, you’ll be seeing the same things.
It Is Dusty in San Pedro
Since it is the driest place on earth, I fully went in expecting there to be some level of dust. I was shocked when we arrived and I saw that there were still unpaved roads and no attempt to clean the dust from the streets.
When it is windy, you can see the dust blowing around all over. Even when it wasn’t sunny out we wore our sunglasses for protection as without them we would have gotten so much sand in our eyes.
After walking to town, we had to wash our legs and feet off in the shower when we got back to the hostel to get rid of the dust. As someone who hates being dirty, the dust drove me absolutely crazy.
The ATMs Run Out of Money
There are only 4 ATMs in the entire city. Not surprisingly, they ran out of money over the weekend. On Monday morning we went to the ATM to get money to pay for our hostel. We saw an armored truck and a line of people forming. I got in line and waited a full hour before I could get money out. Instead of filling the 1 machine that worked and leaving, the bank tried to fix the machine that was broken. Ironically, after almost an hour of attempting to fix the ATM, it was still broken. They left it out of order and everyone used the only working ATM.
You Can’t Order Only an Alcoholic Drink
One afternoon we decided that we wanted to go sit on a patio and have a drink. Seems like a simple enough thing but it wasn’t. In San Pedro de Atacama, you can’t have an alcoholic drink unless you purchase food. I’m not sure why this rule exists, but it is highly enforced at every establishment with a liquor license.
We were happy to learn after talking to other travelers that we have met on the road, that we are not alone in disliking San Pedro de Atacama. In fact, my favorite part of my time in the city was when we were at the bus station, ready to go on to our next destination.
If you are an independent traveler that is trying to stretch their budget, this is not the place for you. If you are a traveler that prefers to do tours and doesn’t mind paying for convenience and comfort, you may like this city.